How a Teenage Sacagawea Guided the Lewis and Clark Expedition Into Immortality

By: Carrie Whitney, Ph.D.  | 

Sacajawea
From North Dakota on, Sacagawea helped smooth the passage for Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their first expedition from the Missouri River near St. Louis, to the mouth of the Columbia River at the Pacific Ocean in Oregon. HowStuffWorks/Statue-Education Images/Map-Stock Montage/Getty Images

Her image was immortalized on the golden dollar in 2000, and she is recognizable by her forward-looking gaze and the baby she carries on her back. She's been described as an interpreter for the Lewis and Clark expedition, but relatively little is known about Sacagawea despite that fact that she is one of the few women ever depicted on U.S. currency.

For starters, you are probably saying her name wrong, although hopefully not as disrespectfully as General George Armstrong Custer in "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian." Today, it may be written Sacagawea (not Sacajawea), but a spelling from the journal of William Clark (as in Lewis and Clark) will get you closer to saying it correctly — Sah-kah-gar-wea. Although Sacagawea was a Shoshone, her name is given in the Hidatsa language and means "bird woman," according to Carolyn Gilman, author of "Lewis and Clark Across the Divide."

"She was a Native woman who was thrust into history when she accompanied Lewis and Clark," she says. "There are a lot of things that have been claimed for her that you really can't say."

We do know that Sacagawea crossed the Continental Divide at the age of 17 while toting her infant son. She also crossed cultures and played a role in the success of the expedition and perhaps unknowingly in Manifest Destiny.

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Sacagawea's Early Life

A Lemhi Shoshone, Sacagawea was born around 1788 in modern-day Idaho. Twelve years later, she was captured by the gun-possessing Hidatsa tribe, who, according to History, took her to the Hidatsa-Mandan settlement near what is now North Dakota.

The settlement was an international trading center, and she lived with the Hidatsa — the reason her name is thought to have meaning in that language — for a few years until French-Canadian fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau took her as a wife. In this case, "wife" is a relative term, and she was one of two. James Ring Adams, senior historian, History and Culture Unit at the National Museum of the American Indian Smithsonian, describes her as a concubine or a consort. Some accounts state that she was sold or even won in a card game.

Regardless of how she ended up with Charbonneau, who was about 37 years old to her 16, Sacagawea was pregnant by the time Meriwether Lewis and Clark arrived in the area.

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On the Road With Lewis and Clark

The Lewis and Clark Expedition had begun in 1803 when President Thomas Jefferson sent out "The Corps of Discovery" to explore the land gained from the Louisiana Purchase. It's important to remember that the land deal with France included a lot more than today's eponymous state. The territory stretched from roughly the Canadian border to the Gulf or Mexico and from the Mississippi River to Colorado, nearly doubling the size of the United States.

Charbonneau offered his services as interpreter to Lewis and Clark, proffering that he had two wives from near the Continental Divide, explains Adams. He got the job, and Sacagawea was chosen to accompany him on the expedition.

Gilman suggests that Lewis and Clark might have wanted to bring Sacagawea more than her husband because they were looking for a Shoshone translator. Charbonneau only spoke Hidatsa and French. But you couldn't hire a woman, you had to hire her husband, she says. Lewis and Clark had a generally low opinion of Charbonneau. In fact, Lewis later described him as a "man of no peculiar merit." By contrast, Sacagawea proved to be an advantageous member of the expedition.

Sacajawea
A painting by Alfred Russell depicts Sacagawea guiding the Lewis and Clark expedition from Fort Mandan in North Dakota through the Rocky Mountains.
Bettmann/Getty Images

In the beginning, Lewis and Clark were interested in her tribal connections because her Shoshone band straddled the Continental Divide, and it was crucial for them to cross it, according to Adams.

"It turned out even better than they expected," he says. When the expedition first encountered the Shoshone, Lewis was leading, and after an initial contact with an old woman, was approached by a band of about 60 Shoshone on horseback who became friendly enough. But when Clark's group met up with them a day or so later, Sacagawea was with him, and one of the Shoshone women recognized her as the girl who had been kidnapped many years before. The leader of the band turned out to be her brother. An alliance was formed between the expedition and the band, which then provided horses and guides.

Because of incidents like this, Lewis and Clark developed more and more respect for Sacagawea, says Gilman. Simply having a woman with an infant signaled to those they encountered along the way that they were not a war party. Tellingly, by the time they reached the Pacific Coast, she was given a vote in deciding whether or not the expedition would stay there for the winter of 1805-1806.

"Her worth to the expedition became more and more evident as it went on," says Adams. When the group returned to Fort Mandan in North Dakota, Lewis and Clark recorded paying both the interpreter, Charbonneau, and the interpretress, Sacagawea. "Her role in the success of the expedition deserves all the legendary status that it has."

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Post-expedition Life

After the expedition, Sacagawea remained with Charbonneau.

"We don't know much about what happened to her afterward," says Adams. She may have traveled to St. Louis with Charbonneau to deliver her son Jean Baptiste to Clark, who had offered to raise him and provide him with an education. She had a second child, a daughter, whom she named Lisette. Just months later, Sacagawea died after suffering from "putrid fever," according to History.

A popular myth of the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming says that Sacagawea lived there into her 90s and was buried at Ft. Washakie, but that has been debunked, according to Adams. Most reports show that she died in 1812.

In total, there are few documentary mentions of Sacagawea, says Gilman. A traveler who met her commented that she was a sweet person but offers just one sentence. A fur trader recorded her death in 1812 and said she was the best woman at the fort. Everyone who discussed her had something good to say about her.

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Sacagawea's Legacy

The Lewis and Clark Expedition was "overly successful," says Adams. It was billed as a scientific exploration to learn about the newly acquired territory, which was largely unknown to Anglo-Americans. In fact, Jefferson hypothesized that the expedition might encounter mammoths or mastodons. Politically, the expedition "solidified the American claim to that area," according to Adams.

Clearly, the expedition had far-reaching ramifications, and Sacagawea played a part in its success. However, Lewis and Clark attached little importance to her role, although they mention her several times in their journals, says Gilman. It was Nicholas Biddle who edited their journals for publication and interviewed Clark. Much of what is known about Sacagawea comes from the Biddle interview rather than the journals, and Sacagawea has an enhanced role in the 1814 published version because Biddle immediately saw that the public would be interested in her.

Sacajawea
The head side of the 2000 U.S. dollar coin features the likeness of Sacagawea and her infant son, Jean Baptiste. A bald eagle in flight surrounded by 17 stars (the number of states in the Union at the time of the expedition) is featured on the tail side of the coin.
Blank Archives/Getty Images

"She has been used to symbolize various things over the years," says Gilman. Sacagawea was adopted, as many Indian women have been, as symbols of the amity with which the Indians collaborated with European Americans. There is a great need Americans have to justify their actions by pointing to the people who collaborated with them, particularly the women. Like Pocahontas, Sacagawea was "kind of drafted into this symbolic role."

"They all become mythic," she says. These figures symbolize the union of two different cultures and become symbolic founders. "That's actually what's going on for Sacagawea. She is for the West what Pocahontas is for the East." And in this case, she is not just a figurative mother, Sacagawea is also a literal mother figure.

Nevertheless, although she may be seen by some as a La Malinche-style collaborationist (La Malinche was the Mexican woman who played a key role in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire by Hernán Cortés), as someone who was a facilitator of the invasion, Gilman says that Lewis and Clark were not on a military expedition in the way that Hernán Cortés was, so those accusations cannot be levelled against her.

"I would like people to empathize with her," says Gilman. "She was a person who found herself in a situation where she could contribute to history, and she lived up to the expectations that were placed on her. She showed remarkable fortitude and perseverance throughout the whole experience."

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